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Rising from Ruin is an on-going MSNBC.com special report chronicling two coastal Mississippi towns, Bay St. Louis and Waveland, as they rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

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BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. – Ostensible allies in the effort to remove the still-huge piles of debris left behind by Hurricane Katrina are engaged in an increasingly bitter conflict over the progress of the cleanup and the way it is being run.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and its politically connected prime contractor AshBritt, which is overseeing the federal cleanup in most of Mississippi and parts of Louisiana, are in the middle of the fracas. In the wake of the Aug. 29 hurricane – the most destructive in U.S. history -- they have been fending off angry attacks as varied as the wreckage itself – a thick blanket of toppled trees, boards, bricks, shards of glass, wire, clothing and household items that still covers large parts of hard-hit communities along the Gulf Coast.

Maddest are local governments and citizens chafing over what they consider the lackluster pace of debris removal; critics of the process by which the federal contract expected to ultimately be worth $1 billion was awarded; and subcontractors who say their crews and equipment are standing idle even though they were promised abundant work.

Such criticism can be heard in virtually every coastal community between Alabama and Texas, but nowhere is it louder than in Bay St. Louis and Waveland, neighboring towns in Hancock County, Miss., that sustained some of the heaviest damage when Katrina’s 30-plus-foot storm surge crashed ashore.

One of the most outspoken critics is Waveland Mayor Tommy Longo, who charges that a combination of federal bureaucracy and private-sector dithering has substantially set back his city’s recovery.

“With the military, a lieutenant on the ground can make a decision,” he told MSNBC.com. “With FEMA and the Corps, the lieutenant has to run it up the chain of command and wait for someone else to decide what to do.”

'I don't think they're capable of doing the job'

He expresses equal disdain for AshBritt, noting that the Pompano Beach, Fla., environmental services firm is still bringing new subcontractors to Hancock County five months after the storm.

“A contractor like that should be able to get geared up in 30 days,” he said. “If they can’t get geared up in 90 days, I don’t think they’re capable of doing the job.”

The Corps and AshBritt also have been taking it on the chin from subcontractors alleging everything from incompetence in administering the contract to favoritism in handing out the cleanup assignments.

“I would just like to know how many contractors from Mississippi and from other states have gone home bankrupt because the Corps has jerked them around so much,” said Luke Theis, a contractor from Finley, Ohio, who rushed heavy equipment to the Gulf Coast only to see it stand idle for long periods waiting for it to be “placarded” – tagged with tracking numbers – and assigned to specific job sites.

Many locals say they haven’t fared much better.

Debbie Woodcock, a Hancock County landscaping contractor who lost $100,000 in heavy equipment to Katrina and then used her $30,000 insurance settlement to lease a tractor-hoe, a front-end loader and two trucks with 60-cubic-yard dump trailers, said AshBritt has given plum assignments in the most easily accessible debris fields to favored out-of-state contractors while her crew has been underutilized clearing rural roads.

“I do not fault (AshBritt) for bringing them in,” she said of the out-of-state competition. “There’s no way we could have handled this in the beginning ... but now we deserve a chance to make a living and keep the money in-house.”

Click 'Play' to see and hear Debbie Woodcock describe her experience as a subcontractor for AshBritt

Another local subcontractor, who spoke with MSNBC.com on the condition of anonymity because he said he feared retribution, said he was receiving good jobs from AshBritt, but was being hampered by “utterly incompetent” execution by the Corps.

“Our crews move around constantly .. .but often when they get to a new site, the supervisor doesn’t show up. So we end up sitting around, burning money,” he said.

Corps, contractor cite scope of job

Officials with the Corps and AshBritt say they understand the frustration, given that they and their grumbling partners are faced with the biggest disaster cleanup in U.S. history.

In Hancock County alone, the Corps and its contractors already have collected more than 3 million cubic yards of debris from public right of ways. That is less than half the estimated total of 7 million cubic yards of debris in the county, and reflects the fact that work is just beginning work on several vast debris fields – including a 2.5 acre wetland at Bayou La Croix estimated to contain 35,000 cubic yards of debris -- and its program to remove Katrina’s detritus from private properties is just hitting stride.

And Hancock County’s mounds account for a small slice of the total of 100 million cubic yards the Corps estimates was strewn around the Gulf Coast.

“I don’t know that anybody could have been prepared to respond to a storm of this magnitude,” said Jasper Lummus, the Corps’ mission manager for debris in Hancock County.

Lummus said the record number of hurricanes this season and foreign conflicts that taxed the Corps’ resources -- especially its ability to adequate numbers of on-site quality assurance inspectors -- added to the difficulties.

“We had to compete with Texas, Louisiana and Florida, not to mention Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said.<

AshBritt President Randal Perkins denies the company is being unfair in doling out assignments, adding that some out-of-state contractors have been given the biggest jobs because they have resources that the locals lack.

Complaints about fairness called inevitable

He also told MSNBC.com that such complaints are inevitable in such a chaotic situation.

“Seventy-two percent of every dollar we’ve spent has gone to Mississippi contractors,” he said. “… But you can’t make everyone happy. There’s always going to be somebody critical of what you’re doing.”

He also said the massive effort is making good headway and predicted the cleanup will be “significantly completed by the end of April (or) mid-May.”

In Hancock County, criticism of the pace of the cleanup has been fueled by data regarding the execution of Rights of Entry – the removal of debris on private property.

As of Jan. 26, the Corps had received 8,594 ROE forms from the county, but AshBritt’s subcontractors had completed debris removal on 1,073 properties – or 12 percent of the total -- over a seven-week period, according to figures provided by the county’s Emergency Operations Center.

In just four weeks, Beck Disaster and Recovery Services, a private contractor hired by the city of Waveland to clean debris north of the railroad tracks, completed 75 percent of the 705 ROE requests it has received from residents, according to data the firm provided to the city.

“Those numbers should be flip-flopped,” said Longo, Waveland’s frustrated mayor. “With the resources of the Corps and AshBritt, the numbers should be the opposite of what they are.”

AshBritt’s Perkins rejected the comparison, noting that the city’s southern sector sustained much heavier damage than the area north of the railroad tracks.

“The mayor’s entitled to his opinion,” he said. “But the cleanup now is relegated to private property and includes … demolishing houses. There’s a process involved and it’s far more time consuming than picking up wreckage on right of ways.”

But Waveland’s mayor isn’t the only one questioning the efficiency of the Corps-AshBritt effort.

Aldermen in Pass Christian, Miss., in neighboring Harrison County, voted in January to give the Corps and AshBritt two weeks to address complaints that work is progressing at a snail’s pace and that AshBritt isn’t hiring local subcontractors. The remainder of Harrison County and at least three other communities in Mississippi also have hired private contractors rather than go with the Corps and AshBritt.

That indicates a substantial level of distrust, since local governments must pay 10 percent of the total cost to outside contractors if they decide to shun the federal program, then seek federal reimbursement later.

Communities negotiate better deals

One reason for the break-away is that those communities have been able to negotiate cheaper deals than the rate called for in the debris cleanup contract the Corps awarded to AshBritt after an expedited open-bid process that lasted just three days, instead of the usual month or more.

The exact savings are hard to pin down, but Longo said that a Corps official told local officials at a meeting in October that AshBritt was being paid about $6 a cubic yard more than the $16.95 that Waveland is paying its prime contractor to remove and dump debris.

Alicia Embrey, a Corps spokeswoman, would not confirm that, saying only that AshBritt receives $17 per cubic yard hauled as well as “additional line items in the contract.”

“The prices paid per item are proprietary information (under the terms of the contract) and are not releasable,” she said.

But a line-item sheet for ROEs distributed by AshBritt to its subcontractors, a copy of which was provided to MSNBC.com, makes clear just how lucrative those extras can be. Among the prices paid to the subcontractors:

· $79 for each “hanger” – a limb 2 inches in diameter or larger removed because it poses a safety hazard.

· Payments of between $100 and $700 for “leaners” – dead or damaged trees angled more than 30 degrees.

· Up to $395 for the removal of stumps, with additional payments if dirt is brought in to fill the hole.

Such add-ons can add up, as one ROE job site that the Corps showed MSNBC.com demonstrated.

At the lot on Waveland’s Sandy Street, a subcontractor, Billy Joe’s Excavating from Owensboro, Ky., was in the process of removing what the Corps quality assurance specialist Dennis Murchison estimated “upwards of 400 cubic yards of debris” and 25 damaged trees from a lot on Waveland’s Sandy Street.

At the rate of $9 per cubic yard that AshBritt is paying subcontractors, that works out to an overall price of at least $11,100 for a three-day job, assuming the median rate for the trees. At a rate of $17 per cubic yard, and assuming the same rate for trees, AshBritt and other contractors higher up on the construction food chain would split another $10,700.

Firm connected to GOP, hired former Corps official

AshBritt's political connections and use of lobbyists led to some raised eyebrows when the company received the Katrina contract – worth an initial $500 million and another $500 million if the Corps triggers an option, which Perkins said he expects will occur in late February.

The Corps said at the time that AshBritt, and three other companies awarded cleanup contracts on an expedited basis, were selected from 22 bidders based on “past performance, technical capability, ability to provide sub-contracting goals for small and disadvantaged businesses, ability to respond, and price.”

But the company’s political connections have prompted congressional investigators to look into the contract and payments to its subcontractors, the New York Times reported in September.

Among the links presumably being scrutinized are the company’s $40,000 contract with the former lobbying firm of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican stalwart who was Ronald Reagan’s White House political director and a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

The Hill newspaper also has reported that AshBritt also hired the former head of the Corps, Mike Thompson, as its lobbyist shortly before it won the contract.

In addition, campaign records compiled by the nonpartisan group Political Money Line and reported by the Associated Press show Perkins, AshBritt’s president, and his wife, Saily, have given $50,000 to the Republican National Committee, $10,000 to the Florida Senate campaign of Mel Martinez, former secretary of housing and urban development in the Bush administration, and thousands more to the Florida GOP since 2000.

Also attracting attention was the insertion in the contract of language preventing the Corps from releasing information that AshBritt identifies as “proprietary,” such as the line-item payments.
Alex Knott, political editor for the Center for Public Integrity, said such that such language could be used to dodge public accountability.

“A lot of times companies don’t want to give out details of how they do business ... arguing that giving out this information would put them at a competitive disadvantage,” he said. “But it’s difficult to know whether that’s a legitimate concern without seeing the information that they’re withholding.”

AshBritt’s Perkins said his company won the contract on the merits of its bid and played down the importance of the non-disclosure clause, describing it as standard legal language.

“We’re not really worried about it getting in the hands of the competitors,” he said. “It will eventually become public.”

Conspiracy theories abound

The secrecy surrounding contract specifics has helped fuel conspiracy theories among those trying to make a living on the spoils of destruction.

Several Hancock County contractors interviewed by MSNBC.com, all of who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they have been quietly been told by AshBritt representatives to take their loads to a specific debris dump in the county.

“If you don’t, you don’t get any work the next time,” said one.

Others speculate that the company is handing out the best cleanup assignments to companies in which AshBritt has an investment, allowing it to “double dip” in the federal financial trough.

Perkins acknowledged that his company has “ownership interests in several companies around the United States that are involved in disaster related services,” but denied allegations of favoritism.
“We have no ownership stake in any dumps in Hancock County … (and) we don’t have any interest that would be considered in conflict with our contract,” he said.

Many Hancock County subcontractors interviewed in preparing this article also charged that AshBritt and the Corps have zero tolerance for complainers.

“I’m working with these people,” said one local subcontractor. “Maybe in a few months I can talk about my issues.”

One local offered up an example to back up the charge: Gerald Charles, owner of a Bay St. Louis construction company with heavy equipment at the ready.

Charles, he said, antagonized AshBritt and the Corps by complaining at a Board of Supervisors meeting that he had been given no cleanup work despite an assurance from company officials that he would be among the first hired.

“Gerald pushed too hard and made a lot of people mad,” the contractor said.

Charles, interviewed outside the FEMA trailer he is sharing with his family, said the only work he has been able to land since Katrina was a grading job from the county, and has received not a single job from AshBritt despite many visits to the firm’s local office.

He reiterated the complaint he made at the supervisors meeting, saying the shutout was doubly painful since he is effectively being prevented from working for neighbors who would have hired him if they weren’t waiting for Corps contractors to come in and clean their lots for free.

“I told them, ‘Look, not only didn’t you allow me to work, you took work away from me,’” he said.

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Zero comments??? This article says that AshBritt basically bribed their way into the contract and is doing a poor job at cleanup. Has the nation lost interest in the devastated southern coastline? Or is the outcry censored by the blog-keepers?

Seems to be just another nail in the coffin of the Republican Administration to "take care of the good ole boys" and screw the American Tax payer.

For crying out loud! For just ONCE in this country's lifetime, put the economics and one-upmanship aside and let's get these communities up and running again! I find it ironic, in a sarcastic sort of way, that Katrina blew away all these lives and the trappings that surrounded lives, but it wasn't strong enough to blow away the red tape. Cripes! Another classic example of capitalism run amok.

Hmmm. AshBritt is preventing other companies from earning a living? It sounds like a good case for a class-action suit against the Corps of Engineers and AshBritt. I guess Enron and Halliburton still haven't awakened the American people to blatent corporate corruption and profiteering at the expense of those in need.

The debris removal process here in Jackson and Harrison counties, MS are abhorent. Filing debris removal papers is a chaotic nightmare with advertised centers having people travel to 3 different locations to file papers. I have not seen one single Mississippi truck hauling debris. The debris removers themselves are now proving to be a hinderance. On congested roadways (as so many outlets into and out of cities are destroyed) the slow moving trucks occupy all available lanes, usually driving side by side of each other. They are required by law to cover their haul, however I have not seen one single truck covered since the storm. Debris now lies in the roads and strikes passing vehicles as it falls out.
We are eternally grateful for the help and aid we have recieved from all volunteers. These folks, however, are not here out of charity and goodwill. They're here for the fat paychecks the government is shelling out. Most residents are ready for them to go home and put our people to work. People who care about this area, understand the flow of it, and aren't just out here to make a buck.

Who benefits?
Greed at the expense of others?
A neutral party or governing body without its finger in the honey jar should be evaluating the situation. This entity should access the capabilities of the subcontractors, main contractors and the need of the communities effected. This process on the surface a seem a simple idea until one looks at the cost of the contract of $500,000 dollars (which is the first tasted of the honey). What should be part of any governmental contract like this is published minutes of every meeting and published information on every charge made connected to every site worked on. All these transactions held up to public scrutiny would have a very cleansing effect. All contract decisions made should have reasoning behind them and the information held public. One, this would indicate to the tax payers where the money is going, their money. Two, this information would help indicate who is holding up the process and not buzzing to get the job done.

Whether it is contractors in Iraq or Mississippi when the sum of $500,000 million is involved the quickest paws are first to empty the honey jar at the expense and needs of others. Open up the process. Does the company ENRON teach us anything?

PS I work as a project Manager for a post reconstruction company that gets the job done.

It is ironic that the great outcry for government assistance has been answered, and we've gotten exactly what we asked for -- government assistance, which is unfortunately more like government affliction.

My friends have poured themselves into the cleanup effort and have met with disappointment after disappointment because of the web of governmental red tape that snarls the very ones who have come to the rescue.

How terribly sad! Why should ANYONE profit from another's misfortune. Why can't these contractors go in with an hourly rate, work their fannys off until the job is done and go home? Shame on every last one!

Another example of this goverments failures and dissapointments. We are dealing with a bunch of thieves. Plain and simple. The president does not give a rats ass about you people in Missisippi or New orleans. Look at the response in New York after 9/11. It was a podium for Bush. Things got done a lot quicker. ( More things than we wanted! ) This president has no clue and he does not care. If he did, things would be different.. God forbid there be another disaster. You poor people, my heart and prayers go out to you all.

Thousands of federal employees have done nothing except work 12-14 hours a day, seven days a week, since Katrina came ashore, to help clean up the mess. Your article fails to properly give them the credit they so richly deserve.

My sister lives in Diamonhead, MS, She had an excellent experience with the Corps of Engineers handling the debris removal on her property. The trees, brush, and houshold debris were cleared efficiently. The crew did a great job. They did arrive about 2 weeks later than when she was told they would be there. But other than that, it was a blessing to have the help when everything in you life has become overwhelming.


First of all, all of the debris removal is 100% federal right now whether the Corps does it or the locals do it. This article states that it's 100% federal if the Corps does it and 10% cost shared if the locals do it - that's wrong.

Second,as far as progress in Waveland on ROE work, Waveland's contractor only has to work in the city limits north of the railroad tracks, while the Corps is responsible for debris everywhere else in the County. Also, the Corps was told by the locals to concentrate on the Right of Way removal first and then work on ROE as a second priority.

Third, it has always been the responsibility of the local government to respond to these disasters. If they can't do it, then they are supposed to ask their County for help. If the County can't do it, then they are supposed to ask the State. If the State can't do it, then they request help from FEMA and when it comes to debris, FEMA will task the Corps. If the locals have the ability to contract for the work themselves, the Corps shouldn't be involved. The Corps has a mindset that put's safety first and due to that, will put more constraints on a contractor that will normally slow progress, but get the work done in a safer manner. They will also monitor contractors more closely to insure they are picking up only eligible debris. That can also slow the process.

Lastly, when the prices were originally negotiated, the contractor was probably required to bring in fuel and lodging for their crews because it was not available locally. Plus the contractor is required to take more monetary risks because they have to put "money on the street" for several weeks before the government paperwork can follow up to put money in their hands.

While this article may have some good points in it, it appears to be too simplistic and more of an attack job than an impartial reporting of facts. As usual, it's easy to target the "big, bad, government" and "evil big business".

It is appearing that large amounts of moneys set aside for disaster recovery cannot be managed from the top down. We have too many cooks in the kitchen. Additionally it is appearing that a most efficient method of spending and getting the most for the buck is to simply give the moneys to the local governments. Requiring a spending budget submitted by local Mayors and auditing spending against that budget by the guys at the top seems to be a much better approach. Let the guys living in the middle of this disaster handle it. Let them request what is needed, let them direct the Corps of Engineers when and where needed, let them handle the subcontracting for clean up. Everyone just needs to get out of their way and they'll get the job done more quickly and less expensively

I'm surprised to see that theres not a Bush-Chaney owned Construction Contractors doing the work along with Halliburton.
Any group that can have 10's of millions of dollars un accountable but spent in Iraq can surley loose a few more million here in the States as well.
Damed I just now noticed that my Computer is bugged
wow now who would want to bug a old man's computer-goes to show ya never know.

Human greed and major levels of mendacity seem to appear anywhere $ is being handed out. State Attorneys General should appoint independent boards to investigate. Perhaps egregious behavior should be classified by state legislators as felonies.

As a volunteer who just returned from New Orleans, I cannot begin to describe just how much debris there is. The trash lines streets, is in the streets, and more often than not, still in the buildings. I saw some contractors work feverishly without a break and I witnessed some being purely greedy by taking unnecessary free meals. The task of removing all the debris is daunting and I can understand why many would be intimidated. The trash must be picked up, sorted through and then distributed. It will be years before all is well again.

I live in Long Beach, MS and agree that all of the removal is running at a less than snails pace. The way things are going now, it will be 50 years before the coast is cleared and rebuilt. The casinos are coming back full force and some are up and running, which is great for the government and economy, but how in the world are they going to make any money from the locals, if there is still a large portion of residents still living in tents?!

quit complaining, first it wasn't done and now it isn't done right, what else did you expect if you did not do it yourself. the government can't even take care of basic needs, be glad, dusty or not that halliburton is getting all the money. you are just making bush and chaney richer by the minute. and you are just a little minute grain of sand in the big picture. i am sorry if i am attacking the government but something is wrong here.

Sounds like more GOP corruption at the best. The one contractor should take Ashbritt, the Army Corp, and Federal Gov't to court over its lack of a spine to taking complaints and refusing him to get work.

And the world wants to know what is wrong with America. It is written all over this article, it is called corruption. We have a never ending supply and corruption is utilized in every situation even ones that involve catastrophes involving our own citizens. I am about ready to move to Sweden.

Typical business as usual government mentality.
NEVER FORGET: The government's job is to funnel
tax payer dollars to the big guy, not the little guy.
The little guy has never counted to Unca Sam.
Katrina victims need cash and shelter.
That should be the priority, not residue removal or
trash clean-up. Katrina victims can clean up their
own yards, so let's pay them to do it, not big
contractors from out of state.
.....Lee Suba

I am all for helping the people who were impacted by Katrian, but to be honest with you my sympathies are thinning. We all have experience hard ship and yes it sucks, so Pick yourselves up by the boot straps and get on with your life!!!!

Rendering assistance to those in need is a necessary and nobel act, but these people are turning into chronic complainers that are never satisfied.

Thanks to MSNBC for following up and doing what they said they would. Wish that more people in that area were sending in diary entries so we could see their side of events.

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